The Vietnam War is not something filmmakers have shied away from, so the challenge for Michael Cimino right away was to make “The Deer Hunter” something different. He succeeds. “Deer Hunter” is a portrait of life for American soldiers before and after war. It’s goal is not to expose the horrors of the war or acclaim the bravery of its soldiers, but to show the far- reaching effects of post-traumatic stress. Although the film drags frequently because it doesn’t use traditional storytelling methods, the feelings Cimino wants to get across are felt.
Unlike any other film before it, “The Deer Hunter”‘s greatest asset surprisingly lies in a plot device: the “game” of Russian Roulette. Although a small percentage of this three-hour film, the mere concept of loading one bullet into a six-shooter, pressing it against your head and pulling the trigger is a powerful means of storytelling. All the suspense, anticipation of gore and the fact that the main characters Michael (De Niro), Nick (Walken) and Steve (Savage) have to play it makes ten minutes of Russian Roulette just as intense as a 25-minute battle scene in another war movie. If “Deer Hunter” is remembered for nothing else, Russian Roulette alone assures it will never be forgotten.
There really isn’t a plot in this film in the traditional sense. The characters have no specific goals or desires, no obvious motivation. They have enlisted in the war apparently because they believe it’s the American thing to do, but even that’s only a sense we get from their limited patriotic dialogue. The only through-line in the entire film is De Niro’s character trying, from what it looks like, to get everyone back together again like nothing terrible ever happened. Again, it’s not a clearly expressed objective, but when you think about it there’s nothing else that could possibly be living for. Basically, Cimino relies on our empathy with these jolly small-town characters to understand what’s going on in the film and why it matters.
“Deer Hunter” is a visual film. The setting in both Pittsburgh and Vietnam is a crucial part of Cimino’s attempt to create the empathy, seeing as he doesn’t provide us any easy access. Dialogue is not his preferred method of revealing character and creating drama — we have to keenly observe how these characters change from the beginning when they joyously drink and celebrate Steve’s wedding to how they cope or fail to cope once they suffer the trauma of Russian Roulette.
It’s a heck of a challenge staying on board with Cimino’s vision, but the Russian Roulette scenes, as intense as they are and as primely located in the film’s plot structure as they are, really keep the film glued together as well as our eyes on the screen. Seeing that happen justifies the speechlessness of these characters as their lives continue after their experience in the war. Cimino knows how effective this is because loud noises are planted in the post- war scenes and they always make us think someone fired a gun. When John Cazale’s character Stan brings up his little revolver prior to the war scenes, we don’t care, but when we see it after De Niro comes back from ‘Nam — instant suspense. It’s a shame Cimino never continued successfully after this film. Few films could get away with non-traditional storytelling and manage to leave the impact that “Deer Hunter” does.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Directed by: Michael Cimino
Written by: Michael Cimino, Deric Washburn, Louis Garfinkle, Quinn K. Redeker
Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage, John Cazale